Marijuana gets a bad reputation, but a recent study suggests that states that legalized marijuana for medical use have less prescription painkiller overdose-induced deaths than states that have not legalized marijuana.
In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that though deaths from painkillers are on the rise, there has been a 25 percent lower rate than expected in states that have medical marijuana policies.
"Prescription drug abuse and deaths due to overdose have emerged as national public health crises," said Colleen Barry, senior author of the study. "As our awareness of the addiction and overdose risks associated with use of opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin grows, individuals with chronic pain and their medical providers may be opting to treat pain entirely or in part with medical marijuana, in states where this is legal."
In 2010 along, lead study author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber said that states with medical marijuana laws had 1,700 fewer overdose deaths than what would have normally been expected.
This is the latest in a growing amount of evidence of marijuana's medicinal usefulness, especially when using the drug to help patients take lower and less dangerous doses of opiate pain medications.
In a commentary published with the study, Dr. Mark Brown and Marie Hayes said it upsets the conventional thought regarding marijuana.
"The striking implication is that medical marijuana laws, when implemented, may represent a promising approach for stemming runaway rates of nonintentional opioid-analgesic-related deaths," they said.
In the study, researchers used data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and collected from death certificates. They then looked at states that implemented medical marijuana laws.
Bachhuber cautioned that the data didn't show a 25 percent decrease in rates of opioid-overdose deaths, but a 25 percent lower rate than was expected.
According to the CDC, 60 percent of opioid overdose deaths are in patients who have a legitimate prescription for the drug. Furthermore, the number of people receiving opioids to treat pain has increased significantly over the past decade.
Despite the benefits associated with medical marijuana, there are also associated health risks. There has not been, however, a single documented case of medical marijuana overdose.
"As more states pass these laws it will be important to continue collecting information and update our results," Bachhuber said. "On an individual level, I think many medical providers now struggle in figuring out what conditions medical marijuana could be used for, who would benefit from it, how effective it is, and who might have side effects; some doctors would even say there is no scientifically proven, valid, medical use of marijuana. There is definitely a need for more studies to help guide us in clinical practice."